Here is a sobering fact: on August 15, 2020, when India celebrated its 74th Independence Day, only 16.8 per cent, or 1 in every six, of the 191 million rural households in the country had functional tap connections that supplied them potable water for drinking and other domestic use. A majority had to depend either on a nearby hand pump or a walk to the well. The burden of collecting the water fell usually on the women and girl children of the household, resulting in loss of both time and energy. Besides, there was no guarantee that the water thus collected was potable, leading to water-borne diseases that continue to plague much of India.
It is not as if successive governments since Independence have neglected this vital need. In the 1950s and '60s, the focus was on construction of new wells and renovation of old ones to provide water to households. With the launch of the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme in 1972 by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the focus shifted to sinking borewells and providing hand pumps. When Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, he launched the National Drinking Water Mission in 1986 that fixed norms, including the source of drinking water supply being within half a kilometre of a household instead of the prevailing 1.6 km and to enhance the per capita norm of 40 litres to 70 litres a day for each household. Borewells using the latest technology were sunk on a massive scale under this mission. By the turn of the century, the country had creditably achieved the target and the focus shifted to providing safe piped drinking water to households on a gradual basis.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi was re-elected to the post in 2019, he announced the launch of the Jal Jeevan Mission in his Independence Day address to provide safe water from a functional tap connection to every household by 2024. The PM also introduced another significant change when he consolidated the different ministries dealing with water issues, whether for drinking, irrigation or conservation, into a super ministry called Jal Shakti for better coordination and speedier development. For the Har Ghar Jal Mission, as the piped drinking water campaign was called, he set aside Rs 3.6 lakh crore and ensured that the states shared anything from 30-50 per cent of the expenses. Bharat Lal, additional secretary in the department of drinking water and sanitation, says, "By providing tap water to every rural household, the focus is on assured quality and supply. The aim is to not only ensure ease of living but also enhance the quality of life, especially for the female members of the household."
Graphics & Illustrations by Tanmoy Chakraborty; Source: India-WRIS
Water trek: Not much seems to have changed since 1954 (Photo: Getty Images)
In his first term, Modi implemented the Swachh Bharat Mission to ensure that every village, town or city became open defecation-free (ODF) by providing every household with a toilet, besides solid waste management. By 2019, the government had constructed over 100 million toilets and, on October 2, the country declared itself ODF. Now, he would focus his attention on water supply with the same zeal. The Har Ghar Jal programme has already seen 33 million households provided with piped water, making Lal confident that the remaining 127 million households would be covered by 2024 as scheduled. Technology is being employed massively to monitor every aspect of the programme, including the geo-tagging of every piped connection and checking of water potability with instant alerts to maintenance staff for aberrations. Importantly, all rural schools are also covered under the programme, so that children have access to safe water and therefore not prone to water-borne diseases. Simultaneously, there is a programme to reuse the 'grey' water after having it purified for agriculture or industry so to avoid wastage. Apart from boosting investment in rural areas, Jal Jeevan is already proving to be a job generator, employing hundreds of thousands in the scheme.
Meanwhile, the Jal Shakti ministry is working on conserving the country's scarce water resources. While India comprises 18 per cent of the world's population, it has only 4 per cent of the global water resources. Agriculture is the biggest water guzzler, followed by industry and domestic users. Of the total cropped area of 140 million hectares, only 44 per cent has assured irrigation, with a demand to expand that area substantially. With more states opting to provide free power to farmers, the overexploitation of groundwater for irrigation has reached critical levels in several states, including Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. The Modi government has launched schemes to promote micro-irrigation for more efficient use of water apart from rainwater harvesting projects. The government has been encouraging farmers cultivating rice and sugarcane--both huge water guzzlers-to diversify to other crops. This is an uphill task, but remains crucial if India has to avert the looming water crisis.